I hope everyone is having a relaxing and joyous holiday. I apologize to those who came looking for me the past few months- I was quite overloaded at work and unable to get time to research and post here. I hope that everyone transitioned from summer cooking to holiday cooking with ease. If you were able to start early and pack your freezer for the full month, you were ahead of most of us, me included. We had a few cash flow issues and decided to shop in bits and pieces rather than all at once, and boy, was that a mistake! As I am sure you have seen, a combination of factors led to a severe shortage of eggs, chicken, cottage cheese, and vegetables. We survived by having hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries for one holiday meal to my children’s delight. I raced back to the supermarket Thursday morning and grabbed the chicken before it was put on the shelves and carefully counted out how many tomatoes and cucumbers we will need for the holiday, trying to see what other vegetables could be substituted- even canned! The other shoppers and I were pretty somber as we trudged through the aisles picking up necessities as we went.
What happened this year that caused such shortages? For each product, there were different reasons:
Misrad HaChaklaut has been warning us of an egg shortage since highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) hit the poultry industry this spring in addition to closing the doors to imported eggs from Turkey. Other countries have been exporting to Israel, most notably Spain (ES), but the increased time it takes from laying to landing in the supermarket has caused shelf life problems as well. At the beginning of this week a shipment of six million eggs was diverted to a pasteurization facility because they arrived 10 days late. That would leave only six days from the date of arrival at the egg grading facility to the end of the sell-by date. The government approved the import of 7 million eggs without meches for September as a replacement for the lost eggs.
Between the Jewish holidays and the Muslim/Druze holiday of Eid al Adha (“The festival of the sacrifice” or chag hakorban), there weren’t any workers left in the slaughterhouses to process chicken. Beef, which has a much longer shelf life than chicken, wasn’t affected.
The constant flow of holidays-Shabbat-holidays also affected production of cottage cheese, which needs 24 hours straight to produce and has a shelf life of only 12 days. The price didn’t go up as far as I could see, but there was barely any to be had on the shelves.
That heat wave we had the past two months didn’t zap only us- it also zapped the vegetables attempting to grow in 50C greenhouses. Not only that, but a new virus has claimed the lives of vegetables in the South, exacerbating the shortage. In comparison to chicken and cottage cheese, vegetable prices have skyrocketed because…well…it isn’t exactly clear why they should be so much more expensive than the other products that have a limited supply. The wholesale price did rise somewhat but the supermarkets are taking a huge profit margin and that is what is causing the high prices. Tomatoes that have a wholesale price of 3.75 shekels/kg are sold to the consumer at 8.70 shekels/kg- even 10 shekels/kg. The wholesale price of cherry tomatoes was decided by the Grower’s Council to be 12.50-13.00 shekels/kg but they are being sold to the consumer at 20-25 shekels/kg. (You can check out wholesale/retail prices on the Ministry of Agriculture web site)
How to stop the price gouging? Many say that increasing import of vegetables will force competition and therefore lower prices. Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel has:
“…instructed Ministry of Agriculture personnel to enable extensive imports of fruits and vegetables at this time and with greater ease from Jordan and other countries. The aim is to overcome the shortage and bring prices down to their original level, while at the same time ensuring that these measures will not cause damage to farmers or to Israeli produce.”
While this sounds lovely, the truth is that no matter how low the wholesale price is, nothing is preventing the supermarket chains from doubling- even tripling the wholesale price. In fact, this was seen when the import tax was removed from apples- the prices actually went up! See my post about it here. The same with canned tuna- the import tax is gradually going down, but retail prices have stayed the same. So unless the government steps in and limits the markup on newly-tax-free items, the only people who are benefiting from these tax breaks are the supermarket chain owners- not the consumers. Hopefully the consumers’ unions will realize the futility of lowering taxes and push for more meaningful solutions.
To end this post on a positive note, below is a poor copy of a chart from yesterday’s Mekor Rishon showing the change in prices since 2011. Red is fruits/vegetables, green is housing prices, tan is food without fruits/vegetables, yellow is house maintenance, and pink is furniture and house supplies. Except for a blip in 2013, everything has gone down since 2011, and a few items even went into minus. Maybe the message here is that we need to take a step back and look at the big picture.